A week ago, CEO Tim Cook unveiled HomePod, its first new piece of hardware since the Apple Watch was introduced to a skeptical public two years ago. Normally, there would be lots of oohs and ahhs and genuflecting before the Apple alter, prompting its stock price to fly ever higher. closer to the clouds.
But that was then.
The reality of the here and now is that the public and would-be buyers of its stock harbor greater doubts about Apple's ability to innovate than in many years. Certainly more than at any time since Steve Jobs returned to the company in 1997. HomePod may look great, but doubts remains about its underlying voice-activation technology, known as Siri. Though Apple embraced voice-activation well before Amazon.com Inc. (AMZN - Get Report) or Alphabet Inc.'s (GOOGL - Get Report) Google, Siri finds itself in the unusual position of having to play catch-up.
"Amazon built a really good voice recognition and then really opened it up to developers," Roger Entner, president of Recon Analytics, a Boston-based technology consulting firm, said in a phone interview. "Apple didn't do that, and even though HomePod will probably get better with time, Apple is like a lion that gets run over by an army of ants, because there are so many developers."
Apple's decision to tightly control Siri's applications fits with the company's history of producing expensive high-margin products and services that historically came to dominate their respective markets. The iPhone, of course, is exhibit No.1, but so is the iPad and iTunes and iPhoto. When Apple touches something, it has often turned to gold.
But voice recognition is one area where Apple may have fallen behind. Another appears to be in the download speeds of its iPhone. Apple didn't immediately reply to request for comment.
To be sure, Apple has a long history of playing catch-up and then overtaking the competition. And that might happen with Siri. For the moment, though, Amazon's Echo and Google's AI-powered Home have taken the lead in the race for the best-functioning voice-activation device, said Robert Kay, president of Endpoint Technologies Associates, a consultancy.
Alexa's superiority is partly a result of a business model that less concerned with technology than in selling products, Kay said. Whereas Apple focuses on tightly controlling the user experience within its universe of products, Amazon is more interested in making it easier for the average consumer to use its online marketplace. Google has a totally different business model of selling eyeballs to advertisers.
Of the three, Amazon is most likely to capitalize on voice activation, he said.
"When you use the Echo, you may be buying products from Amazon," Kay said. For the other two, Google and Apple, neither one of them is going to get a penny every time you use their device."
And that gets back to how the companies view the role of developers. Amazon reported earlier this year that over 10,000 so-called skills were available on Alexa, a product of making its conversational applications, known as chatbots, easily accessible. Apple has made no such proclamations, subtly arguing that so many functions make for a lousy user experience.
That's not keeping consumers away from making Alexa a best-selling product. RBC estimates that by 2020 Alexa could have 500 million active customers worldwide.
"Amazon has been able to generate a tremendous library of functionality with Alexa so that there's a usefulness to the platform because of the way they opened it up to developers," Kay said in a phone interview. "Apple, conversely, has restricted access to Siri, which gets back to their DNA. Apple just prefers to do things themselves and keep other people out of the inner workings of its technology."
There are signs that Apple is beginning to loosen its tight grip. Apple agreed to make Amazon accessible on its AppleTV, ending something of a Cold War between the two global technology companies.
HomePod is Apple's push to overtake Echo, or at least reassert its products among those willing to spend more for products that at least seem to be of higher-quality. At $349, Home Pod is far more expensive than amazon's Echo at $180 or its Dot at $50 or even Google Home at $129. But true to form, Apple's focus remains on its existing customers. HomePod is meant to be the device that pulls together all of their other Apple products amid its overarching race for control of the so-called connected home.
"HomePod is a sign that Apple is committed to improving Siri but for mass adoption, it's just priced too high," Entner said. "It all comes down to a battle for control of the home, and right now Alexa is beating Siri."
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Editors' pick: Originally published Jun. 13.